Several years ago, in the early months of my new position as a seminary president after 23 years of parish ministry, my older daughter, then a ninth-grader, came home from school one afternoon and shared with me a conversation she had had that day with a teacher. In the midst of discussing something else, the teacher had startled her with the question, “What does your father do?” She told me she began to swell with pride as she answered, “My father is the new president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary here in Austin.” There was a pause, she said, after which the man asked, “What’s a seminary?”
Preacher’s kid that she is, she was astonished. Preacher’s kid that I am, so was I. After all, I am deeply embedded in the internal logic of theological education, and have been for as long as I can remember. It is hard, therefore, for me to grasp that so much of that internal logic–logic that appears to the theological community as so, well, logical–is essentially a great mystery to countless throngs of otherwise educated and alert people in our culture, and, I dare say, even in our church.
So I’ve been thinking about that ninth-grade teacher’s question, “What’s a seminary?” I want to try to answer it in this article, and, while I’m at it, to make a case for why theological education matters to the church.
Seminary, first of all, is a place where men and women come to get a theological foundation for the practice of ministry. There is an intentional modesty in that definition. Seminary is not an assembly line from which ministers pop out like fully-formed churchly widgets totally prepared for the next twenty or forty years of Christian service. It is instead a place where they get a foundation upon which they will be building for the rest of their lives. Their theological education is not completed at graduation; it’s only getting started.
There is a widely-held assumption in the church that seminaries can cover everything pastors need to know in those three short years; they can’t. There will be much that even our best and most experienced graduates will need to learn in the church, and it’s important for churches to remember their own role in the ongoing formation of church leaders. It’s been years since I graduated from seminary, and I still find myself, year after year, learning from the wisdom of people in the church–men and women who are forever helping me add to my seminary foundation. In fact, I wish that every one of our churches could see itself as a “teaching church.” If our Reformed tradition expected teaching to happen only in the formal setting of theological education, we would be poorer for it.
What seminaries do provide is a biblical and theological foundation on which to build: Old Testament and New Testament, Reformed Theology, Christian Ethics, Church History, Pastoral Care, Christian Education, Homiletics and so on. Seminary takes us deep into the essentials of the faith, providing the indispensable core that every pastor must have. I can’t help but think of Jesus’ parable of the foundations of sand and rocks when thinking of seminary. We dig down to the solid rock so that every future edifice of pastoral knowledge is on a solid footing.
Secondly, seminary is a place in which a particular body of memory is nourished, and unapologetically so. Students learn two biblical languages that few people speak; they pore deeply into theological questions over which wars were fought hundreds or even thousands of years ago; they learn from the ancients as well as the thoroughly contemporary; they burn midnight oil debating such things as the “filioque clause;” and they come out knowing about words–such as “anamnesis,” “epiclesis,” “pericope,” “soteriology,” and “eschatological”–which, from a purely practical perspective, represent dusty arguments from the past that are no longer relevant or useful. Better, some say, that seminaries become “trade schools”–highly efficient organizations where pastors learn to be “entrepreneurial” in a hundred different ways. The apparent uselessness, in a purely practical sense, of so much of what seminarians learn vexes many persons.
Years ago at Austin Seminary, a trustee once heatedly complained to one of my predecessors of the complete inefficiency of seminary education. Without missing a beat, he responded proudly, “Yes, and it has taken us many years to achieve this level of inefficiency.” He was on to something: much of the biblical and theological heritage imparted by a memory-bearing institution has its own value quite apart from values assigned by the marketplace. As my colleague Dean Michael Jinkins has put it, “Face to face together, plumbing the mysteries of God and God’s world, slowly, surely, three steps forward and one step back, faith deepens, community forms among students and teachers, bonds of deep respect are forged even in the midst of disagreement, and we glimpse here and there the purpose of it all–that God is making of us a company of pastors, a company of persons who can listen with grace and speak the truth in love and honor the holy in the ordinary.”1
Thirdly, seminary is a place that assumes, in the education it imparts, a necessary distance. When I entered seminary as a twenty-one-year-old, I began my first day on campus with the attitude that there wasn’t too much that I still had to learn about ministry, about church. Having been raised in the church, I was sure that I had so thoroughly tramped around the landscape of the faith that there wasn’t much about it that I didn’t know; but maybe (I thought) my purpose in being there was to be useful to all those other students around me who didn’t know as much as I did. It was as if I had walked all around God taking pictures. And so it was that in my first year of seminary, I was essentially turned upside down. I was often assaulted by, chastened by, corrected by, and finally illumined by nothing quite so much as a cleansing distance from my premature certainty. There is, of course, a blessing in this distance–that of wrestling, like Jacob, with an angel or two in one’s seminary career, and of walking forevermore with the limp conferred by a new identity.
Fourthly, seminary is a place, period. I make this argument in a time in which many others, smitten by what’s within reach in an internet age, are proposing that one can successfully “go to seminary” while sitting in their pajamas at a laptop in their living room. While acknowledging that technological innovations make possible many wonderful things and in many ways enhance the education we offer at Austin Seminary, I maintain nonetheless that, fundamentally, there is an incarnational quality to theological education–the imparting of the apostolic tradition–that insists upon learning in community. You can get information at your laptop, but the process of formation is an altogether different matter. Michael Jinkins again: “If we wish to serve the God whose very being is in communion. …; and if we wish to serve this God specifically by leading God’s people, we must learn the lessons of pastoral wisdom in the midst of … those communities that take us beyond and sometimes even call into question the ways and habits of the communities most familiar to us.”2
Which means, lastly, that seminary is a place that is, or at least ought to be, counter-cultural. A seminary education worth its salt will endeavor to prepare persons to give the church and its attendant culture what they need, and not necessarily what they want. It is my sense that popular culture often wants entertainment from the church in our time. The worse the news out there gets, the more the world wants to come to church hoping that pastors will change the subject. The world is wishing for pastors who will show it, in as winsome a way as possible, a God who happens to love the very same political and social agendas the world loves. This is the sort of captivity of the church that the world will pay pastors good money to buy into; and it is the seminary’s job to urge, “For God’s sake, don’t.” After all, pastors serve the church for God’s sake. They preach, they teach, they study, they comfort the bereaved, they baptize and break the bread for God’s sake. And as they do all of that for God’s sake, they become living reminders that God so loved the world that God gave the only Son–not because that gift was what the world wanted, but because it was what the world needed.
Amazingly, men and women keep coming to this place, the seminary. Often successful in other careers, or coming out of colleges with a world of options other than service to the church, they nonetheless sense a voice urging them toward something essential to their own becoming. And they decide to enter our seminaries and give themselves to that voice–for God’s sake. And, by the grace of God, from generation unto generation, the church goes on!
1 From an essay by Michael Jinkins, “Loving God With All Our Minds,” published in an in-house piece called “On Entering Seminary.”
Theodore J. Wardlaw is president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.